Chris is the Co-founder of Apartment List, the fastest growing apartment search engine ever (1.2 million monthly users in under 15 months). In this episode Chris talks about the automation of their successful content strategy for inbound leads.
TOPIC CHRIS COVERS
- What is Apartment List about
- His role at Apartment List
- What is the growth of Apartment List
- The fastest growing apartment search engine 1.2 million monthly users in under 15 months
- The automation of his successful content strategy for inbound leads
- How he approaches a lot of things in his business
- His thought on ACM and SEO
- And a whole lot more
LINKS & RESOURCES
WATCH THE INTERVIEW
READ THE TRANSCRIPTION
Bronson: Welcome to another episode of Growth Hacker TV, Bronson Taylor. And today I have Chris Herndon with us. Chris, thanks for coming on the show.
Chris: Thanks for having me. Great to be here.
Bronson: Yeah, I think we can have a really fun conversation. You are the co-founder of Apartment List. So tell us first, what is apartment list?
Chris: That’s a great question, Brandon. So through a combination of technology and world class design and user experience, what we’re trying to do is reinvent what is an extremely broken rental marketplace in the U.S. And, you know, that starts by, you know, compiling a comprehensive selection of rental listings, but it continues into providing a really user friendly interface across both web and mobile.
Bronson: Yeah, that’s great. And you mentioned design there to go and we’ll get to that later because it is a beautifully designed product. What is your role at Apartment List? Because co-founder kind of means you do everything. So is there anything specifically you do there more than other things?
Chris: I think everything, you know, sums it up. And I official title is president and co-founder. But I do wear a lot of hats. You know, traditionally did a lot of business development. A lot of our initial kind of data and revenue partnerships were poor to, you know, us getting a lot of supply on the site, but also, you know, kind of bootstrapping the business and making sure that we keep the lights on. And then, you know, these days I spend a lot more of my time on product. You know, I’ve been the de facto kind of head of product for the last couple of years. So fortunate to bring in a lot of really talented product managers as of late that are making my job a lot easier. Make it look good. But yeah, just figuring out, you know, what are we going to be when we grow up? Weighing trade offs between income and near-term revenue, kind of building out from our long term product ambitions and making sure, you know, the engineering team is, you know, bought in. They understand where we’re headed and everyone’s rowing in the same direction.
Bronson: Yeah, I know. It’s great to have a co-founder on who’s a product guy because that’s really the heart of so much of you know, what we talk about here is the product. Now let’s talk about the growth of apartment list a little bit. You helped grow the site and that’s what I read online. You can tell me if it’s off a little bit, but you helped grow the site to 1.2 million monthly users in under 15 months, making it the fastest growing apartment search engine ever. Is that right?
Chris: Yeah. Yeah, that’s right. And, you know, I can’t take much of the credit at all. You know, we have a great team over here, particularly on the user acquisition side and our partners. We owe a lot of credit. So oftentimes our data partnerships are our revenue partnerships. And that’s really important because because we have a monetization strategy, because we have a business model that enables us to tap into paid user acquisition channels, and that can be search engine marketing, the display advertising. And that’s really important to us. You know, startups don’t often have a business model. They focus on product first and in business model second. And then they’re not able to kind of access some of the paid user acquisition channels. So that’s really important for us.
Bronson: Yeah. So you actually have money coming in so you can pay money in advertising to get more money to come in. Right.
Chris: And that’s the idea.
Bronson: Well, I want you to break that down for us a little bit, because, you know, to get to 1.2 million monthly users, you know, you start at zero. I mean, we all start at zero. Walk us through kind of the phases. You know, you’re at zero and you’re trying to get 1000. You’re at 1000. You’re trying to get 10,000. You’re at 10,000 to try to get 100,000. Well, we’re kind of distinct phases that you can say, Yeah, that was a unique phase. And then we went into this phase. And talk us through how you actually grew the user base, how you actually acquire customers in those different phases because it’s in the details that we really learn a lot, you know?
Chris: Yeah, yeah, absolutely. So out of the gates, you know, PR and word of mouth were a nice boost. You know, we were, you know, in the TechCrunch, you know, in Pando daily, like every startup gets. And, you know, fortunately or fortunately for us, unfortunately for people that live in the Bay Area in New York, other supply constrained markets like that, finding an apartment is a huge problem. Something that people talk about a lot. So a lot of what we’re trying to do really resonated with users. So we got some good users out of the gates that way. And that being said, you know, apartment search is something that you do. You know, if you’re lucky, only every two or three years. So getting in front of that customer when they’re ready to search for an apartment is a challenge. And and that’s where, you know, search has really come in for us. So for search, you know, we’re we’re really active not only in the natural organic search, but also in the Fed sponsored stuff. So when somebody is saying, you know, they’re looking for a two bedroom apartment in San Diego, you know, that they’re looking for an apartment. And a part of the list is going to be a great way to get in front of them. So we invest heavily into SEO. You know, we have a well-written, you know, informative, clever apartment hunting guide for every city in America, which is helpful and the search engines like that a lot. And obviously, because we have a comprehensive selection of apartments, our user engagement metrics are really high and things are a really strong signal to the search engines that we’re a great page to rank. So we get a lot of natural search that way. On the paid side, I mentioned this earlier. We do have a business model which helps a lot because our data partners have very often hey us every time we connect a renter with one of their landlord clients. And that enables us to pay, you know, 30 or $0.40 to get a user to come to the website. If we can turn that into 50 or $0.60 over the lifetime value, use it.
Bronson: Yeah. Let me ask if you follow up questions about those tactics you just kind of laid out and you mentioned the guides, you know, and I think it’s a great idea. A city guide for the Different Cities, How to find an apartment. Was that something you did initially run out of the gates, like, let’s write these guides. And then also, how do you write them as you’re writing them? Did you hire somebody, you know, a VA to do it? And walk us through that process because I think it’s a great idea.
Chris: Oh, well, I appreciate it. It’s a it’s a great question. You know, one of our advisors. His name’s Dennis GROSS. He’s a bit of an enigma in the Silicon Valley, but is one of the smartest CEOs in the world. And he helped us formulate our strategy. So while we were developing apartment LESCOTT and this was, you know, starting in early 2011, before the launch in September 2011, we knew that we wanted this awesome content on the website. So we started to write these in advance of our formal launch. And, you know, I wrote a handful of the first ones. So did our head of content at the time. And over time, to scale it to the 1000 largest cities in the U.S., we did need to tap into a freelance, you know, network of writers. So we recruited them over Craigslist, developed kind of a style guide, a tone, a language that we like to use a voice. Mm hmm. And, you know, people would, you know, adopt that voice. And we were able to scale it out to a thousand city guys. It was really cool. And it had over a kind of a 6 to 9 months time frame.
Bronson: Yeah. Like how much strategy there is there? You know, SEO is not just hope. There’s actually a plan there of we’re going to have these city guides and here’s the thousand cities is the goal and initially it’s the co-founder, but eventually it’s, you know, people on Craigslist. But there’s really a plan there. And sometimes SEO gets grouped into the it’s not a plan category when it really can be. So I like that a lot. And you also mentioned, you know, buying ads on the search engines. What have you learned about that? Because I know when you first start doing it, you know, things change drastically. The more money you spend, the more you learn. What’s really worked for you guys there? What are some some tips and tricks about? Like, don’t do this. Do do this. What have you found out there?
Chris: Oh, I’ve heard it’s an extremely analytical exercise. So one mistake that we made early on is, is we were looking to hire people that do ACM for a living. And, you know, sometimes that those can be the best people and they’re really good at it. But very often times you just want to hire the smartest person that you can find. So it’s an extremely kind of analytically rigorous exercise. So what we did is we we learned it ourselves, you know, that, you know, read for Dummies. Just got in there and started creating some campaigns. There’s nothing like just doing it yourself. But for time, when it came time to hand over the reins and scale things out. We look to hire just pure athletes. So we have former investment bankers, former management consultants, really intelligent folks that just work really hard, that we teach SCA. And we found kind of over within like four weeks, they’re pretty good at it. Within two or three months, they’re really good at they’re already you much better than us at it. So that’s been one way that we’ve scaled out thing. I’d say with CRM, it’s different in every category. Mm hmm. So one thing that you need to do is, is sorry brands there. Somebody waving me down here that I’m going to wave them away. You go. Yeah. No. So I see them as just one thing. You’ve got to prove it out through our way. So if you don’t have those pixels on your website, kind of proving out that they came to your site, what you wanted them to do to convert. You might as well be flushing money down the toilet. So you need to make sure that you’ve got your analytics set up right. Your pixel pixels are firing. And it’s it’s not a faith based initiative, measurable. And that’s that’s one of the exciting things about it.
Bronson: Mm hmm. Clear here. You didn’t hire people who were asylum first data second. You hired people eventually who were data first who could learn them. I hear that right.
Chris: So if you heard me correctly, we hired someone that was awesome. First, analytical, second, and it was a nightmare. We had to part ways. And once we had learned our lesson, yeah, we ended up hiring just really smart people that they couldn’t spell. But we knew they were really intelligent. And we. We drill down on their analytical capabilities. Mm hmm. And then haven’t made a mistake hire in that department. That’s. That’s.
Bronson: Yeah, that’s so unique. I’ve never heard somebody actually go that route. That’s awesome to hear. And I’m also seeing a trend emerge here with the guides. You write them first and you figure out the style guide and what works, and then you hand over the reins with them. You say, Look, we didn’t know it. We bought Asylum for Dummies. We figured it out. Then we handed over the reins. It seems like that’s an approach you take with a lot of things in your business is do it yourself first, learn it and then handed over because you can actually lead in that case and not just be, you know, following somebody who claims to know what they’re doing. Is that kind of how you approach a lot of things in your business?
Chris: That’s exactly right. You know, I’m kind of a first time entrepreneur and new to this whole management thing. And I’m not going to tie another hand behind my back by not knowing what the hell I’m talking about. Yeah. Having done something first is really critical to, you know, kind of managing and mentoring someone else to do it. And you never know if you know you’re doing something right until you do it yourself.
Bronson: Yeah, I think that’s a great philosophy. Whatever you’re doing in your business, you know, you have to do it yourself or you can’t actually lead intelligently. You can sound intelligent, but it’s not really intelligent. So we talked about a couple of things that did work. You know, we talk about CRM and we talked about SEO, and those seem to be kind of the evergreen ongoing strategies for you guys. What did you try to acquire users that didn’t work? What are some of the dead ends? You went down for a month, six months or whatever, and they said, look, this isn’t working. Let’s just go back to ACM and SEO, anything like that.
Chris: You know, one thing that I was personally really passionate about and I was shocked that it didn’t work was our publisher channel. So we would partner with a major newspaper websites and we would power their apartment search section. The San Francisco Chronicle, San Antonio Express-News, you know, Houston Chronicle, really big papers that had kind of decent sized audiences. We said, Well, let’s power your apartment search section. We’ll create this slick, white live website completely branded for you guys, and we’ll drive a lot of traffic that way. And we did this also with the big apartments, ratings and reviews site one with two or 3 million monthly visitors. We figured, you know, this is going to be huge. We’re not going to need Google anymore. This is going to be the answer to our user acquisition initiatives. And none of them really worked out, ended up being, surprisingly, a lot of headache hassle and and technical debt, to be honest. It really just all these white label sites made our our code base much more complex than it needed to be. And it didn’t drop a ton of traffic. And we ended up doing a rev share with these guys that ended up being financially less attractive to us than ACM was. We kept getting better and better at us. Yeah. Yeah. And display advertising is also a huge channel for us. Those ended up being more attractive financially and less headache and hassle, and the search channels ended up just being really low ROI. So we’re phasing out all of that now.
Bronson: Yeah. When you look back at, you know, trying to figure out why it didn’t work, can you put your finger on anything? Like maybe this was the reason that it didn’t convert to more, you know, users, even though you had this well-developed kind of thing? Any anything you can put your finger on there of why it didn’t work, maybe.
Chris: It’s a great question. I’ve talked to, you know, folks in the resale real estate space, the jobs, there’s other classified listings categories about this. And had I had these conversations before then, I think I probably would have been better off. So you need with a publisher, you need an absolute ton of traffic if you expect to get meaningful volume from them. Because even though you create like a white label site and you have it branded, well, it’s not exactly the frame of mind that their user base is in when they’re on their website. So if you want to get enough users into your funnel, you need to start with a really big funnel at the top. And I encountered a lot of cynicism from conversations with peers in these other classified listings categories that if they do a publisher deal even with a a Yahoo! Or an AOL or a, you know, a really big partner like that, they end up getting surprisingly low. Volume. And because these are kind of brand name deals, they end up needing to pay a lot for that. You better make sure that you’re getting a big PR branding benefit from it because you’re not going to really see the ROI from a user acquisition standpoint. And that’s certainly proven some of that. Right.
Bronson: I’m so glad you brought that up. You know, what I think about as you’re talking is that not all funnels are created equal and people don’t realize this sometimes. I just had a friend of mine who teaches a course and the course was being white labeled by TechCrunch, and he got like one sell off of it, like, you know, one or two sales or something just ridiculously low. And yet he thought this was going to be this juggernaut. But the fact is, the amount of traffic you got to have at the top of some funnels is so astronomical, it’s not feasible. And then other funnels you can convert the traffic so well that you can do is far less than the acquisition part of the funnel be converted so much higher. And so it’s really knowing your funnels, knowing the differences in the funnels and really work on the ones that work for you and not just going after, you know, the big names because they may not work. I’m so glad you brought that up.
Chris: Yeah, I mean, the story that comes to mind is that, you know, Yelp a few years ago launched a partnership with OpenTable whereby you can, you know, just kind of book an appointment, you know, right there. And I just thought that was a marriage made in heaven and that was going to just drive so much revenue for Yelp, where at the end of the day, the adoption for that is just been really, really low and it’s a pretty de minimis, you know, revenue line item for you. And I guess the only conclusion that I’m coming to, because Yelp has over 100 million monthly users at this point, is that that’s just really not what someone’s in the frame of mind of when they go to Yelp. Maybe they just want to read the review or they just want to get the phone number, or maybe they’re unfamiliar with OpenTable. So I was really surprised by that, but it just kind of goes to show.
Bronson: Yeah, and you’ve mentioned that idea a couple times now, the frame of mind they’re in. And you know, I think about the strategies that have worked for you guys. So take the guides, the city guides. If you’re looking at a city guide called How to Find an apartment in Chicago or whatever you guys call them, you’re in the right frame of mind because that’s what you’re looking to do. So my guess is that’s part of what’s converting. It’s so well, do you agree with that?
Chris: Yeah, I agree with that. And it’s the kind of the specificity of the searches that we see on our website. So oftentimes, you know, we’ll show up if somebody types in cheap apartments in Los Angeles, you know, we’ll show up pretty high for that. But it’s much more specific than that. They’ll say, I want a two bedroom apartment under $1,000 near the Galleria in Houston. And because the content on our city guides is so rich, you know, we’re talking about what’s the area like near the Galleria? Can you really find something under $1,000? And those types of keywords find our city guys. And when someone has that level of specificity as to what they’re looking for, they’re ready to move. And that’s a high level. And those are the type of users that are attracted to our website and convert really well.
Bronson: Yeah. So we’ve talked about some of the things that did work as the MCO talked about some of the things that didn’t work. These kind of white label partnerships, city guides on someone else’s site. What’s in the future, maybe? What are some things that you want to try? They might work. They might not work. Who knows? But you’re you’re really considering, you know, as soon as you get the resources are kind of putting some things in that direction, anything on the horizon.
Chris: Yeah. So on the consumer side, we’ve really under-invested historically in PR, you know, we had our launch of the website, we got some good tech and mainstream press that well, but we’re making a big investment both internally and we’ve hired an outside firm into PR over the next 12 months. And, you know, we’re sitting on just a mountain of personal data right now and it’s really underutilized. So in terms of kind of trends, storylines, we could really establish ourselves as the authority on the U.S. rental market, given all the data that we have. And there’s just a ton of compelling content out there that a writer at the Chicago newspaper or kind of a reporter at the the Kansas City kind of local news station, would love to talk about like, you know, rents are really on the rise in this, you know, new, gentrified neighborhood within Kansas City. You know what? Let’s let’s take these storylines that come out of the data and really package them nicely for the media that can really get our name out there because building our brand name and getting consumers to think of us first is really critical to us getting to where we need to be, which is, you know, displacing Craigslist is the first thing people think about when they’re searching for an apartment. So that’s on the consumer side. More on the supply side, we have a self-service publishing tool that enables a kind of a small landlord or broker to post the listing onto our platform. And then we also, as an added benefit, will create a really pretty Craigslist posting for you if you still want to post Craigslist as a tool is really slick. But you know, the adoption has been small. You date. So one thing that we’re we’ve been launching over the last couple of weeks and it’s very much an experimentation phase, but the results have been really intriguing is that every month we connect about 200,000 renters with landlords. And a lot of those landlords on our site are kind of UNsponsored. They don’t know us. Their listing got underway on our site through through some type of data partnership. And, you know, we’re connecting them with renters for free. And what we typically do is just say, hey, you know, here’s Jim. He’s looking for an apartment. He found it on apartment. Let’s meet Jim and that’s it. We walk away now, we’re saying, know, we’d love to connect you with German. Oh, by the way, we have this great self-service publishing tool that will enable you to put all your listings directly under our list and also cross post them to Craigslist and really promote that and that we’ve found that on those emails, the open rates and the click through rates are through the roof, you know, relative to any other campaign that we’ve launched before. So we’ve really high hopes about that.
Bronson: Yeah, no, that sounds like a great campaign because if you’re giving someone a lead and then after you give them a lead, you ask for something. It’s so much better than just asking. You’re not going to cold emails and saying, Hey, sign up here and, you know, publish your properties. You’re saying, hey, here’s Jim. He wants to read something. Hey, why don’t you publish your properties? I think it’s a good strategy. And when I think about what you said about the consumer side, I don’t know if you’re familiar with OkCupid, but they have a really similar strategy. They had all this data about dating and they just poured into these really super interesting blog post. And I’ve read some stats and I don’t remember off the top of my head, but such a large percentage of their eventual users in paying users found out about them through the blog first. So I think you’re right when you have a huge data set and it’s something that’s kind of interesting to do consumers like apartments or dating or something like that. I think that’s a good strategy to really utilize that. You’re shaking your head. So I’m assuming you’ve, you know quite a bit about OkCupid.
Chris: Now, a huge fan of their blog. You know, some of the correlations they put together, you know, are not suitable for growth. Actor TV But I just got that and now we put one together and we just to this out, you know, we’ve had together a few infographics and if one of the ones that we had a ton of fun with is that, you know, members of the audience that are from the Bay Area, they sympathize with the pain of of rental rates, you know, over the last year or two. So we actually we have this hypothesis that the growth in venture capital in the tech sector was driving a lot of these rents in the Bay Area. So what we did is we plotted the growth of rental rates in the peninsula and San Francisco versus a lot of tech financings and IPOs. Over the last couple of years, we found that there’s really strong positive correlation and we had fun with it about all the things that you can buy with all that extra rent. But, you know, that was picked up by every media outlet under the sun. I think we were the trending story on LinkedIn for a few days. We had a lot of fun. So I think that’s that’s really the tip of the iceberg of things that we can do with data when we get creative.
Bronson: Yeah, no, I think you’re absolutely right. I mean, there’s going be so many infographics you can push out in the next year or two. It’ll be fun to watch. What are some tools that you use as you’ve grown apart? Melissa’s Maybe tools, maybe apps, just things that are kind of in your repertoire that you just couldn’t do without. And you think other people should really think about using any any go to tools for you guys.
Chris: You know, we are the project management side for development. We use Pivotal Tracker, so we need to go to Agile. Ruby on Rails Shop is probably, you know, you know, accustomed to use that tool that’s that’s been really good for getting us organized. You know, we’ve tried a lot of tools for search engine marketing. There’s a company called Marin Software and another one called Clickable that they’re supposed to be these these automated kind of bidding tools. And we’ve actually found that our our in-house kind of home brewed system, which is pretty low tech, to be honest with you. It’s a lot of Excel. You know, Advanced Excel is much better for us than than these kind of third party tools have. We use a lot of Google Docs, you know, nothing fancy. But, you know, coming from the Microsoft world, you know, kind of having worked in enterprise and being an outlook and a PC guy, you know, I was slow to adopt to Google Docs but now I use about 20 had been really helpful for us. Yeah, it is something that our team uses to keep in touch and we’re getting a kick out of that as well.
Bronson: Yeah, I’m considering hip chat because my inbox is filling up with internal emails and so I’m thinking about trying to move some of that conversation over to a hip chat. I just haven’t done it yet. I’m thinking about it. Yeah, in Google Docs. Same here. I’m a Google Docs all day long. I mean, it’s the heart of business in some senses, which is crazy. Has anything surprised you about the growth of apartment list? Because I’m sure when you come in as the co-founder, you have preconceived notions, maybe what you hope it will do, what you think it might do, how certain things will work out. As you look back, what surprised you about kind of the growth of of apartment list?
Chris: You know what we were thinking about getting into the rental space, into the apartment space. You know, people would tell us, you know, that’s a it’s a really mature, crowded space. You know, folks have been at it since the mid-nineties. You know, how can you compete? And in a lot of that is true. You know, have Craigslist been around and dominant in this space? It’s the mid to late nineties. And yeah, I guess it goes to show if you come into a new space with a lot of energy and a fresh take on things, that you’d be surprised what you can accomplish. Yeah. You know, and particularly in spaces like it’s almost an advantage that folks got started as early as that they did because they’ve become complacent. You know, so you get to this situation in where if you’re a really kind of self-motivated, kind of nimble startup, that you can go in and make a dent in what would be considered a really mature, crowded space.
Bronson: Yeah. No, that’s that’s hopeful advice. It’s hopeful to hear because, you know, so many markets do feel mature. But you’re right, you know, it’s the innovator’s dilemma. You know, it’s because they’re mature that sometimes they’re ripe for disruption. And you mentioned that you guys did things differently. And I want to come back to the UI because the UI of apartment list, it feels very different. I mean, if you go through Craigslist to find an apartment and then you go to a part milescom, it’s like, you know, time warped into the future or something. How important is the UI? Is it just pretty or does it actually help your bottom line?
Chris: Well, we think it’s critical. And and so we talked to hundreds of users before we went out designing. We didn’t design it in a vacuum. And the one thing that we found is that, you know, different users want different things. And a lot of them felt that location, you know, map based search was severely lacking on Craigslist at the time. And since they’ve learned what we learned and rolled out search. And but but we found the ability to toggle between kind of a photo and a list view. And a map view is really critical because if you live, let’s say, in New York City, the difference between, you know, living in Murray Hill and living in Gramercy Park may be a really big deal to you. And that’s down to the block level. If you live in, you know, Dallas, where I’m from, you know, you’re going to have a car. You don’t mind kind of driving everywhere. Parking is pretty plentiful. You might be less kind of specific on where you want to live on a block by block basis. So maybe just a list of apartments within a ten mile radius in in Dallas is going to be better for you. And you can you’re more a visual based searcher and you can look you can search by photos as opposed to by location. So that’s why we’ve had we have a toggle of a photo based view and a map based. And we found that that was really important. Yeah, it really manifests itself, this design and all of the kind of big investment and dedication that we put into product is then retention. Hmm. A user to the site for the first time. You know, it can happen through PR branding, but a lot of times it happens because, you know, they found our link on an a natural or paid search result. But retention not only in terms of their first visit are user engagement statistics is really strong over 20 minutes average time on site which is a wow that’s huge.
Bronson: That’s like.
Chris: Yes. And then the return visit rate is really important. Yeah. So the more that we can get users to come back to the site because in an ideal world they would find their perfect apartment in their first session and it would never come back to a part of us. We all know that that’s not the reality. You check out some places online, you go visit them, some of them work out, some of them don’t. You end up collaborating with significant others of potential roommates. Maybe you extend your current place month to month and you come back. So getting users to consistently come back is a core goal of ours and our our design and our product. And for us to do that, we have a feature called My List, which is like, I guess favorites on steroids. So searching for an apartment, let’s say you start on your laptop on a Wednesday evening, you wanna check out a few places on Saturday is what you do is you save them to your list. And then on Saturday, our iOS mobile app, which is launching this week, they’ll all be your app. You can go, you can take some notes, you can remember. And then when you get back to your laptop later that night, you can kind of compare and contrast the three that you’re down to. So providing a really consistent experience throughout your apartment search is for boulevards. It gets users coming back to the site and really engaging with our brand.
Bronson: Yeah, that sounds great. And you know, you mentioned earlier how broke. And finding an apartment is the users tell you they actually enjoy being on your site. They actually enjoy the act of searching for an apartment because of the experience you’ve created for them.
Chris: Yeah, and that’s one of the most gratifying parts of our job is we can say, wow, I’ve never come across, you know, user experience. You got so many apartments, you make it really easy for me and that’s great. That said, we still get some negative feedback. We’ll be like, This landlord didn’t respond to me or I got to the place. And, you know, it was it was nothing like the pictures. Look, that place was a dump. And what that says to us is we’re not just a discovery based search engine. You know, that’s that’s part of what we are today. But the process of finding an apartment, it’s very hard for a consumer to isolate the website where they started searching from the actual experience that they had down the road, which leads us to what we want to be when we grow up. There’s pain all the way down the cycle, the, you know, corresponding with the landlord. We could do a lot more to make it easier for people to communicate back and forth, to schedule a showing. When it comes time to fill out an application, why are they filling out a, you know, a paper application? What’s the different one for every landlord giving their Social Security number, you know, allowing them to run their credit? It’s just it’s really fragmented and it’s a mess. So what we view apartment lists today is really a beachhead, a stepping stone for us to provide tools for renters and landlords to make their life easier throughout the renter lifecycle. Because we understand that the only way to make the process of finding an apartment in moving easier is to extend beyond just the discovery component, which is what we have.
Bronson: To do now. That’s great. You know, I’ve heard it said before that, you know, founders and entrepreneurs, there are heat seeking missiles and they find the opportunities. And it’s kind like what you said. You have a beachhead, you have the data, you have the list. But there’s opportunities that you’re you know, you’re seeing heat and it’s like, okay, there’s pain right next to this. And when you get there, there’s me pain right next to that all the way down. So you’re kind of going to eventually be a full stack apartment service, but right now you have a beachhead. I think that’s important because you can’t do everything at once. There’s just the resources don’t exist to do everything right now. It’s like you guys just said, you’re releasing an iPhone app, but you’ve been around for a couple of years now. Right. And so but now is the time to release the iPhone app. It’s another piece of the beachhead and you’re going to keep extending out. And I think, you know, entrepreneurs, they have to focus and yet also balance the ability to find the opportunities right around the corner. And no one can tell you how fast to move or how slow to move, but you have to focus enough and take advantage of opportunities enough, or you’ll fail if you do either too fast or too slow, right?
Chris: That’s exactly right. One of our advisors says, you know, you’re going to see a lot of shiny nickels and dimes on the road. And the trick is you got to bypass those and pick up the silver dollars. And, you know, but my quip in return is, how do you know which ones are the silver dollars? And I think that’s the that’s the age old question. And and that’s you know, that’s what separates really successful entrepreneurs from ones that aren’t as successful is being able to make a bet and use your instincts to say, you know, this is a really big problem and I should tackle it first. Yeah, you know, eight, 12, 18 months ago, you know, we were really tempted to break ground on an iOS app. We felt ourselves kind of falling behind. We saw the trends towards mobile and we made a company decision that we could have the best user interface on web and mobile in the land. But if it didn’t have a foundation of great data in the form of available apartments, then it was useless. So we spent that time instead to focus on bringing on more data fees, generating a lot more kind of profile pages of apartments on our website, so that when we do launch this mobile app this week, we’ll have a great foundation of data, on top of which the users can search on the go.
Bronson: That is such great advice. I hope the people watching this or listening to this really understand what you just said and take it to heart because it is such good advice. You know, one of the things I’ve been doing, my team here is every week I ask them, what’s the one thing you’re doing? Because only one thing matters the most this week. So what is that one thing? And then ignore the other shiny objects. Like where’s the silver dollar? Like where’s the the big one? Know I didn’t use that phrase, but that’s essentially what I’m saying, because, you know, there’s three things we could do to move the needle, but one of them really moves it the most. And we each have our own one thing. And that’s been my way of kind of communicating that idea to the team here. And it’s been working because now we’re starting to use that language internally like, all right, this is good, but it’s not my one thing. It’s somewhere else on the list. And then they move on with their one thing. It’s been working. We’ve seen things, you know, move in the right direction. So let’s change gears a little bit. Apartment list is doing awesome. You’re doing great things there. But you’re also an investor, an advisor to quite a few other startups. I looked on Angel List and if my count is correct. You know, there’s a dozen, 13 or so other start ups that you have your hand in in some way. So let me ask you about kind of the advice you give them, because, you know, you had your co-founder had on working with apartment list, but then you have your advisor had on work with these other groups. What strategic advice do you find yourself giving to startups kind of over and over about growth, or do you just feel yourself being a broken record about and it might be something we’ve already talked about, so.
Chris: Yeah. I mean, a lot of it is, you know, some of the things that we’ve talked about in the last few minutes, which is focused. You can’t do everything at once. So a lot of times your your growth strategy, your user acquisition strategy has, you know, eight bullet points on it. You know, I want to do the other thing. I want to do the same thing, and then I want to do kind of PR, I want to do word of mouth. I want to do, you know, the social graph. So what you need to do is decide what your best position to do today and go out and execute on that. And you have a have a near-term execution strategy and a medium term and a long term. If the near-term doesn’t work out, maybe you don’t want to do the medium and long term. You want to scrap that and move on to the next one, because the best thing that we have is start ups is speed in our ability to move quickly. Big companies do not have that. So the faster that you can focus on one thing at a time and prove or disprove that strategy really quickly, the better off.
Bronson: Yeah, I think that’s great advice. What misconceptions do you find that founders come to you with? You know, they think they know about growth even though they’ve never experienced before. And they come to you with this wrongheaded thinking about how it’s actually going to play out. Any misconceptions you see kind of over and over.
Chris: Yes. Typically, I think. PR and brand is overemphasized from the outset. Good. Too many founders, particularly in this part of the country, will say, you know, we’re not going to worry about acquiring users. We’re just going to build a great product and they’ll come. And in that sounds very romantic, but there’s a lot of people building great products out there. And I think, you know, it’s it’s becoming more apparent to the entrepreneurial community out here that traditionally people have focused way too much on perfection in the product and not enough on growth and distribution. But I think despite all the smart people like Paul Graham saying these things, you know, people continue. It’s natural for people spending all day building a product to take great pride in it and assume that others are going to see all the great qualities in that product. Now, I’ll take a step back and say, these are human beings that don’t necessarily care what you’re working on. They care. Is it going to make my life easier? Is it going to make me more money? Yeah. Or have you. So. So focusing on, you know, on growth, focusing on modernization and less on the perfection of the product. Is is is advice that I typically provide in reaction to what I see as an overemphasis on the product, frankly.
Bronson: Yeah. You know, in earlier on when we first started talking, you mentioned that you guys have a revenue model at the beginning and I think you have a point of pride there. Like, yes, we’re we’re making money at the beginning because think about it, money is the best way to validate a product because you can assume, like you said, the people are going to love your product, but until they have to pay you for it, you don’t know anything. But the second someone has to pay for what it is you’re providing, then, you know, you create a real exchange of value, which is the heart of any business model. And so I think you’re right, you know, getting to distribution, getting to the users and not just being overly obsessed with the product, but that you’re saying that from someone with a great product. So it’s not that you’re devaluing product. It’s just, you know, that distribution really matters. So I think that’s great advice when you think about growth. Do you recommend there be one person in a startup that’s kind of the sole individual obsessed with growth? Or do you think it’s really a a team effort that everyone needs to play a role in growth, you know, to varying degrees? How do you kind of view that?
Chris: No, I do think it should be a team. I mean I mean, ultimately, if growth is a big initiative for the company, the leadership, the co-founders, the CEO should be kind of waking up every morning kind of thinking about that, I think. So I’ll find the article if I can and share it with you. But I think Hoffman said there’s three things as a as a consumer web company that you need to think about. It’s growth, it’s monetization, and it’s engagement. And if you try to focus on all three of those at the same time, you’re probably going to fail. So you focus on kind of one or at the most two of them at the same time. And you should create a team that wakes up every morning thinking, how am I going to get more user? Or How am I going to get the users to come back to the site more times? How am I going to improve that? Do you over email? Mm hmm. So it’s creating those task forces with, like you said, kind of a single KPI that they’re optimizing for. So there’s no ambiguity about what I should be working on right now. It’s crystal clear. And yeah, I think ultimately growth is a team effort. But if growth this quarter is a key initiative for us, you better believe I’m going to be waking up in the morning thinking about it. And if we’re not growing, you know I’m to blame.
Bronson: Yeah, no, that’s great. And I expect that kind of answer the way that you do it all yourself before passing it on, like we talked about earlier. So I would expect that you’re also thinking about growth a lot. Now, you mentioned KPI there, kind of having that one goal that everyone’s aware of. And then you also mentioned your debut over IMU, you know, kind of learning of your monthly visitors. How many of them are active daily is that you guys main KPI right now? Is there something else that you’re kind of really focused on?
Chris: No. We’re more focused on on growth and monetization today. Yeah. You know, retention is something that we look at, but I wouldn’t say it’s it’s our core KPI. Yeah. So I would say kind of monthly users and revenue per user. And then the other big one I’d throw in there because we have a big supply effort right now is how many active rental listings do we have on our site at any given time? And growing our share of the overall number of available rental listings on the web is huge to our value proposition in growing. Yeah.
Bronson: Now that’s great. Well, Chris, this has been an incredible interview, given us so much great advice and you really kind of peel back the layers and showed us what apartment list did that work? Did that didn’t work. What you’re going to try next. So I really thank you for your transparency there. I have one last question for you. It might be something you’ve already talked about and maybe something different, but what’s the best advice that you have for anyone that’s trying to grow a startup? It can be a specific or is vague as you want it.
Chris: So I’d say and this is going back to some of the comments that we’ve had earlier, is that. I would not focus on building the perfect innovative solution, but I would get into a market that you think is big. Mm hmm. That you think you can break in to buy out executing the incumbents and innovate from around that. And the reason I say that is because startups very often, the perception at least, is that, hey, there’s a one in ten chance this is going to work out, but if it works out, we’re all going to be filthy rich. Startups don’t need to be that way. You can get into an industry. I would execute everyone, create like a space, like a competitive foothold in that industry. Mm hmm. And roll out innovation from within. Because I’ll tell you what, it’s a it’s a heck of a lot easier to innovate in a smart way if you’re already in an industry talking to kind of customers and users every day than it is to innovate from a vacuum, from a whiteboard ivory tower. So I would say kind of roll up your sleeves, get into the industry, work on creating a sustainable business model so that you’re not beholden to investors. You know that next round of venture capital and figure out exactly what that industry needs before going out and executing on it. Don’t don’t keep your head down for six months coming up with a theoretical solution when you’re not really sure if it’s going to work in practice.
Bronson: That’s great advice. Chris, again, thank you so much for coming on Growth Hacker TV.
Chris: It was my pleasure. Thanks so much for taking the time to.